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Cheers! Chicago: A journey through bourbon-land, America’s oldest spirit

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07/24/2009

When was the last time you asked your waiter where the ingredients and dishes on the menu came from, or how the chef chose to cook them? Now, ask yourself the last time you asked a bartender where your recently poured cocktail recipe originated, or even how the clear, tasteless and odorless vodka in your drink was made? You might ask about the year or region of a particular wine on the list, but do you ever ask what month or time of day the grower decided to pluck the grapes, or what they feed the soil?

Not as much, huh? I thought so.

I had the rare opportunity to learn and experience the fine and underappreciated art of making spirits from scratch to barrel to bottle—specifically Maker’s Mark bourbon in Loretto, KY. After witnessing the process, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to what farmers, flower growers, and textile people experience. The attention to detail, the history, the procedure, the variables, all of these qualities were shining through.

We began by going to the source of the spirit and of life itself –water. Just like fresh quality food, everything great begins somewhere. The limestone filters out the iron in the water, making for a great base for the bourbon. Then we saw the corn they grow and bring in specifically for Maker’s Mark, denoted by a little dent on the corn kernels. We watched as all the fresh ingredients were boiled and the yeast was added to convert the sugars in the malt and corn into alcohol and CO2, and saw the alcohol vapors as they condensed down the tall column still. We got to taste the “White Dog”, or pure alcohol, straight of the still. It’s about 130 proof, so watch out! We went to look at the warehouses to see where and how they barrel and store the bourbon. New American oak barrels go through a rigorous stress test to make sure they can withstand the test of time. We tasted bourbon at various stages of maturation, and noted that longer does not always mean better or higher quality when it comes to time spent in the barrel. Finally, we got to go to the labeling and bottling area, where we saw the “dip ladies” dip all the Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles by hand! A couple of us were so pumped by it, that we  had our sunglasses and shoes dipped in the Maker’s Mark red “wax” polymer! Whether it was the bottling or barreling, the trip to Loretto provided all us Chicago bartenders and mixologists a rare opportunity to see how what we pour gets made!

Today’s cocktail selection is a wonderfully balanced and refreshing summer cocktail that uses – you guessed it – bourbon as its base spirit. The name of this cocktail is the Bourbon Beachcomber, and it goes well with practically any BBQ plate or grilled vegetable platter, preferably soaked or basted with the bourbon. Having been a recent visitor, I am recommending Maker’s Mark for your home shelves as well as for this recipe. It’s great for food and cocktail experiments alike.

Bourbon Beachcomber

Ingredients:

Rocks glass
Crushed Ice (hammer + terry cloth towel + BANG x 20 = crushed ice)
1 orange wedge, quartered
½ bar spoon (1/2 teaspoon) fresh grated ginger, or 3-5 small, thin ginger slices
2 bar spoons of raw Demarara sugar
¾ oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
¼ oz. Domaine De Canton Ginger Liqueur
1.5-2 oz. Bourbon (Maker’s Mark)
Orange wedge garnish

In the rocks glass, place the sugar, orange quarters and ginger. Muddle gently 6-8 times. Pour in crushed ice above the top of glass, then add, in order, the lemon juice, ginger liqueur and bourbon. Stir and add more crushed ice to top. Garnish with orange wedge and sprinkle a little raw sugar on top to imitate sand and sunset. Sip slowly.

So next time you head out on the town, don’t be afraid to talk to your bartender or waiter about  what’s seasonal or pairs well with your food order—or better yet, take a risk and discover for yourself. L’Chaim!

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